A few many years ago, when I still worked part time at a cafe for $8 an hour after school, I used to envy the people who worked in the shopping mall full time.
I envied their freedom because to me, it seemed like they could do whatever they wanted with their lives. One of the girls I worked with had her first baby at 19, and at that time it felt like there were so many paths in life that I could not go down (although in retrospect, I didn’t exactly want most of those paths) and that my life was constrained by norms and expectations set by the people around me.
I was not free.
I felt like I was not free, but in fact I could not have been more free. Walking around the suburbs of Beijing and seeing all the school children in their tracksuit uniforms is one of those moments that has really forced me to revisit my perspectives on what I mean when I complain about not having enough freedom.
Are these children here ‘free’? The short answer is no, and the long answer is also no.
The short answer is that children raised here live an incredibly prescribed life. From the school that they attend and the supplementary weekend and evening classes, down to the friends that they are allowed to make, every decision of their life is a calculated decision made by their parents in an equation that balances financial means with the competition. If all the other parents are sending their children to olympiad math classes, then you better damn make sure that your kid is also taking olympiad math classes.
The long answer is that even for the children who are fortunate enough to receive an adequate education, they are not free to do as they please.
Entrance into university is heavily restricted (suicide by high school students during the gaokao period is seen as a normal, although tragic, phenomenon) not to mention the later struggles in life in the workforce, and for boys, the struggle to be eligible for dating and marriage.
Like in many other places in the world, effort and hard work is not proportionate to reward and outcome.
I used to think of freedom in terms of the things that I couldn’t do. For the foolish 16 year old that I was, this included (stupid) things like dropping out of school and not going to university.
I now think of freedom in terms of the things that I can do. I took, and still take, my university education for granted. I look at the options that I think about when I think about my future, and compare that to the options of the twenty-something-year-old girl who served me food at a restaurant earning some 3000 RMB a month and working 60 hour weeks.
Even to take a basic thing like access to healthcare - the country that you live in very much determines whether you can receive treatment or not.
When I was young, I truly believed that I could do anything with my life. There was nothing (as far as my seven or eight year old mind could tell) that would ever stop me from being the person I wanted to be. The children that I walk by everyday here in Beijing begin with an understanding of all the things that they cannot do.
I was wrong to measure my freedom by the number of doors that were closed for me, because I took for granted all those open doors that I didn’t (and still don’t) even know about.